The National Park Service, after dire predictions that the city's cherry blossoms would bloom well before the popular Cherry Blossom Festival here this spring, reversed itself yesterday, saying the blossoms will probably arrive too late for the annual rite.

During last month's unusual warm spell, Park Service horticulturalist and cherry tree expert, James Lindsay, forecast the blossoms would be out as early as March 20 -- a record early blooming date -- and would most likely be gone before the festival and parade scheduled for March 30 through April 4.

This week, however, in the wake of unexpectedly cool temperatures in the first part of March, Lindsay reinspected the partly-open buds on the 3,500 cherry trees tha ring the Tidal Basin and predicted the blossoms will now be too late for the festival.

"They probably will not be out before April 6 or the following week and might not bloom until as late as April 18, the record late-blooming date," Lindsay said yesterday.

"It all depends on the weather," he said. "We need five-six days of 70-degree weather, but we've had cold weather and the forecast is for more cold weather."

Washington temperatures for the next month are expected to be about normal, in the 50s and 60s during the day, although most Atlantic coastal areas above North Carolina are expected to be unusually cold, according to a 30-day forecast of the National Weather Service released yesterday. The period also is predicted to be drier than normal.

When Lindsay made his blossom forecast last month, the weather service was calling for warmer than normal conditions here through March 15, though not quite as warm as the unusual 20-degree-above-normal temperatures that Washington enjoyed in late February.

The warm February weather ended the day after Lindsay's forecast, however, and Washington temperatures for the past three weeks have been about normal or only slightly above normal.

The festival, which is planned a year in advance, is set for the weekend closest to April 5, according to Nick Evers, this year's festival parade coordinator. Evers said last month he thought that was the average blossoming date.

According to research by Lindsay, however, April 8th is the average blooming date since the trees were planted around the Tidal Basin in 1912. The cherry blossoms usually last six to eight days. High winds have knocked off the blossoms after two days, and one year a freeze killed them the first day they were out.

A Cherry Blossom Festival without the blossoms is nothing new here. It's happened about half the time since 1970, says Lindsay, including last year when the cherries bloomed after the six-day festival and parade had ended, and Washington's first flush of spring tourists had departed.

The festival is considered Washington's harbinger of spring and has long been its largest annual tourist attraction.